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Africa, Lutefisk and Mopane Worms

African elephants were plentiful and breathtaking up close from a canoe. They were also chilling in my mind one night as they stomped by my tent.

“Travel expands the mind and loosens the bowels,” wrote author and physician Abraham Verghese in Cutting for Stone. This quote came to mind in my game safari last month to the Africa countries of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. An elephant stomped around my tent building in the first camp in Zimbabwe. It purred as it ate and moved (I didn’t know elephants purred), and I thought it was a lion sizing up its next meal. When it bulled its way through the bush inches away from the window near my ear, I knew it was an elephant and hoped a hip sway wouldn’t wipe out my sanctuary. It didn’t, but at breakfast a fellow traveler asked about my night. I told him of the elephant, and added that the incident was frightening enough to “end whatever travel constipation I had.”

The trip was a celebration of 50 years of marriage to Jane Legwold, and it was wonderful. Oh, the awe of finding and being really close to and hearing the hippos, hyenas, giraffes, lions, cape buffaloes, leopards, kudu, impalas and on and on. The spellbinding tales told by the guides. The history of these young countries in the context of colonialism. The tea times and sundowners in the bush. The elegant meals and deep conversations in camp. The sunny rains and rainbows of Victoria Falls. The spooky majesty of the baobab trees. The kindness and humor and constant singing — really good singing — of the people. By all means, go to Africa.

The spooky majesty of the baobab tree.
The singing group Amazulu introducing a song they sang for our group. Being sung to was a daily thing.
A hyena was as curious about us as we were about it one early morning.
Raincoats were a must in the mists of Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world and home of rainbows so low you can almost touch them.

Mopane Worms vs. Lutefisk

The safari was getting away, far away, from our normal lives in Minneapolis. No one knew of lefse and lutefisk, except when someone would ask about my books, and it was nice to escape and expand the mind. However, lutefisk came to mind when I ate mopane worms.

Mopane worms contain higher protein than other sources such as chicken and milk. In rural areas, worms are an affordable supplement for protein. Still, it is a worm, a fairly big, juicy worm that is fried with butter and tomatoes and served for dinner.

Mopane worms are an excellent source of protein.

Many people in our group politely declined, but Jane and I said sure, we’ll each try one mopane worm. After all, we had eaten lutefisk and lived to tell about it. Because of that, I felt my companions were at a disadvantage and perhaps secretly wished that they had been lutefisk lovers.

When the moment of truth arrived for the happy couple celebrating 50 years of marriage, I volunteered Jane to go first. She did but not quietly. I followed, getting on my knees in the dark hut where women prepared the mopane worms in a skillet over a low stove. Based on my first experience with lutefisk, I knew it was best not to think about it. I popped that critter in my mouth and chased it with a few tomatoes to buffer whatever may come next. The worm was salty and crunchy, which made me wonder about what is crunchy in a worm. I stopped wondering quickly; I didn’t want to know. I swallowed and smiled and headed out of the hut for fresh air and sunshine.

Mopane wasn’t bad, but I’ll take lutefisk any day.

My mopane moment.
Jane and I celebrated eating mopane worms — and 50 years of marriage — by having our faces painted before going to dinner.
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